There are few better feelings than sitting at a table at Meokja Meokja, for which you’ve likely waited at least an hour, and watching the server slap a thick, beautifully marbled rib eye on the tabletop grill. The meat is prime—yes, prime—and when the waiter hacks it into pieces, you’ll marvel at its juiciness. For me, nirvana came when I wrapped a nub of it in a shaving of marinated radish about the size of a pancake and added a bit of green onion and sweet soy sauce.
Meokja Meokja opened in May, and more than just that rib eye makes it stand out from the rest of Northern Virginia’s K-BBQ scene. For one thing, it’s in Fairfax, not Annandale. It’s open only for dinner (except on Sunday), not 24-7. The portions are smaller and more gently priced than at the competition, so groups can share more types of meat. Then there’s owner Christopher Kim, a 31-year-old econ grad with zero prior restaurant experience. Turns out he worships at the altar of Danny Meyer, the New York restaurateur who launched a customer-is-king hospitality movement.
The restaurant (whose name is pronounced “mukjah muk-jah”) is full of Kim’s idiosyncrasies—and his business savvy. The staff is unfailingly friendly and helpful, and Kim is so hyper-focused on the customer experience that he once chastised a server for delivering to-go boxes to a customer before she’d asked for them. Sunday and Thursday, the place plays Boyz II Men and other ’90s slow jams; other nights, it’s EDM. If it’s your birthday, you might get a light-up ring or pair of sunglasses, one of Kim’s Amazon impulse buys that double as Instagram bait. (Another oft-photographed quirk: the neon sign up front that reads good vibes only.)
Kim struggled to find a chef who’d execute his vision of Korean barbecue, not just replicate what had been done in the past. He argued over fresh meats. (Most chefs wanted to use frozen.) When he settled on chef Kwang Bum Lee, Kim made him recut the pork belly 20 times to get the meat to his desired one-inch thickness—many other places slice it very thin.
Kim is right about the pork belly. The unmarinated version is terrific, especially when you swipe it through a dip of sesame oil and salt. Beyond that, I’d spring for one of the meat combos. The prime version—which includes that rib eye plus marinated short ribs—is, at $75, the most expensive for two to three but worth it. Still, you can eat well grazing on the cheaper offerings, such as brisket or bulgogi.
The panchan on the side includes the typical stuff such as moderately spicy kimchee and an ice-cream scoop of sweet-potato salad. Leave it to Kim to throw in another curve ball—a skillet of melted cheese and frozen corn that’s a decadent invention of his own.
9619 Fairfax Blvd., Fairfax; 571-459-2875
Open Monday through Saturday for dinner, Sunday for lunch and dinner.
This article appears in the January 2019 issue of Washingtonian.